Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Episcopal Leadership and the Complexities of Political Witness in an International Denomination

Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Assistant Professor of Religion and Pieper Chair of Servant Leadership at Ripon College.

I read a trio of articles this morning about United Methodists around the world reacting to issues regarding political rights and persecution. In the first, Rev. Kiboko I. Kiboko of the Iowa Annual Conference provided the latest update in the ongoing saga of his brother, Kano Kiboko, a United Methodist evangelist imprisoned in the Congo for criticizing the government. In the second, UMNS reported on United Methodist responses to violence against farmers in the Philippines protesting for food aid in the face of a severe drought. In the third, Bishop Rosemarie Wenner of Germany commented on the political situation regarding immigrants in Europe.

These three different stories, while united by some common underlying principles regarding human rights, represent three different sorts of political issues on which The United Methodist Church was called to speak. Yet herein lies some of the complexity of the UMC taking stands on political issues. Technically, General Conference is the only body capable of speaking on behalf of the UMC. Thus, the UMC as an institution has said nothing about imprisoned members in the Congo or persecuted minorities in the Philippines or migrants in Europe. Individual United Methodist leaders have.

In the absence of direct comment by the General Conference, one can point to the denomination's Social Principles as official pronouncements on political issues. Yet because they are revised only once every four years (by General Conference), the nature of the Social Principles is such that they speak in generalities rather than address specific situations. Moreover, the majority of the Social Principles were developed with US politics in mind, while none of the three incidents mentioned above occurred in the US. This is a major reason for the push to develop a set of Global Social Principles. Yet even these are likely to suffer from the same problems of broadness and infrequent revision.

The limitations of denomination-wide apparatuses for responding in a timely manner to important political issues of the day highlight the importance of episcopal leadership within The United Methodist Church. Bishops are not only called on to administer the church within their annual conferences, they are also called on to be the face of the church to the outside world within those conferences. That point is well-illustrated by all three stories. In Germany, it was Bishop Wenner speaking to the issue of immigration. In the Philippines, both Bishop Ciriaco Francisco and Bishop Rodolfo Juan were very involved in the UMC's response to the violence against protestors. Rev. Kiboko expressed frustration that United Methodist bishops in the Congo had not spoken out about his brother's plight. Agency executives are also an important witness (as Global Ministries' Thomas Kemper's statement on the Philippines situation shows), but episcopal leadership is crucial.

This arrangement has both advantages and disadvantages. Bishops know their contexts well and are often best equipped to understand and respond appropriately to political situations that arise. They already have established authority with the United Methodist flocks under their care and existing connections to the secular world when a crisis arises. Yet when it comes down to it, bishops can only express their opinions, not make pronouncements on behalf of the church. These opinions are influential ones, and the distinction is lost on many, so this may not be an issue in most cases. There may also be some instances in which the opinion of a bishop does not reflect that of the membership s/he leads or the opinion of other bishops, for better or worse.

Again, this arrangement is not necessarily problematic. Nevertheless, it is worth keeping in mind as General Conference discusses the possibility of developing a set of Global Social Principles that denominational polity determines how and through whom the UMC is able to respond to and serve as a witness regarding pressing political and social issues.


  1. A good piece, David, and a great complement to other conversation about a global set of Social Principles.

    However, I don't under your final sentence. Do you mean something like this:

    "Nevertheless, it is worth keeping in mind, as General Conference discusses the possibility of developing a set of Global Social Principles, how denominational polity structures WORK and through whom the UMC is able to respond to and serve as a witness regarding pressing political and social issues."

    In other words, what does the second "how" really mean? I'd like to get clarification so that I can repost your article on UM Insight. Thanks!

    1. Thanks, Cynthia. I changed the first "how" in that sentence to "that." I hope that makes the sense clearer. Please let me know if it doesn't.

  2. OK, with your change, I think I finally figured it out -- it's the use of the word "structures" as a verb rather than a noun. Perhaps it would be better to set something like "sets up" or "designates." What do you think?

    1. I replaced "structures" with "determines." I'll admit that the noun/verb ambivalence of "structures" was confusing.

  3. Speaking for the UMC is legitimately the role of General Conference, the sole policy making body of the denomination. When speaking to the church on social issues, church leaders wisely employ elements of the Social Principles and Book of Resolutions that aim to teach the members, and others listening, the historic biblical and faith foundations that are grounds for a United Methodist commentary on matters in public debate and discourse. Consistency in employing this strategy for proclamation on one critical issue has reached an impasse as another General Conference approaches. The recent statement by UM African Bishops advises silence on the part of the forthcoming General Conference on the issues of human sexuality, a subject that only generates conflict in their particular cultural context. This from leaders in a region that wholeheartedly promotes the denominational image of a global church. They will insist that debating sexuality issues reflects an insensitive imperialist social agenda, while advocates of inclusiveness believe General Conference offers a teachable moment for needed institutional change. It is a time for speaking strategically and listening critically. There will be no last word on this issue (and many others) from this General Conference. No single voice of authority but many voices continuing to rise in the wilderness of our unsettledness. The issue here is not who speaks for the global church, but who will be listening and learning!

    Robert J Harman
    Retired Mission Executive